January 20th, 2021

Response to fear will determine how we get through COVID-19

By Jensen, Randy on April 3, 2020.

Lethbridge psychologist McMillan James speaks on stress and coping during the current COVID-19 crisis as part of a livestream session by the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. SACPA/YouTube

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald


Lethbridge psychologist McMillan James says the way we respond to fear could mean the difference between getting through a crisis like the current COVID-19 pandemic whole and well, or becoming a victim of it.

James presented her thoughts on people’s physiological and emotional responses to the coronavirus threat at the Southern Alberta Council of Public Affairs (SACPA) weekly speaker series via YouTube livestream on Thursday.

“Our sense of normal has been completely disrupted,” she said, “and so with this disruption of normal comes this fear and uncertainty, and a sense of being unsafe.”

“Humans are incredibly adaptive to crisis,” James explained. “We are equipped with the ability to handle acute stressors, but I would like to emphasize that it’s acute. We are built to handle acute stress for that moment, and then be able to recover. I think the difference when we are working with COVID-19 is it is not just acute: it is becoming chronic. We are seeing it last longer than a month so this stress response we have, which has been adapted for our survival, has had to carry out for a longer period of time, which is not necessarily what we are designed (physically) to do.”

Unrealized or uncontrolled fear can lead to the tripping of our flight-or-flight instincts or freeze instincts which diminishes our ability to think rationally through a crisis situation. Fight or flight triggers behaviours like hoarding, James explained.

“We see all these uncharacteristic behaviours (when people are afraid),” she stated, “and I think if anyone has been viewing the web we see these two categories: we see these over-responders and and we see these under-responders.”

“When we look at these over-responders, I see them through this flight-or-flight lens. If we can’t fight our threat then we try and run. So what we are seeing in these over-responders is these people who are mobilizing and triggering this primal instinct to protect and survive.

“And it comes off in some of these ways we are seeing at grocery stores where someone is taking 20 packages of toilet paper and we only need one. We take it all because we are scared. These people are fearful, right? And when we are responding to a threat, we are losing that capacity to think clearly. We just act on that really impulsive side of us.”

The freeze-fear reaction often triggers reckless behaviour and certain people’s inability to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation in front of them – sometimes even leading to outright denial of the facts in front of them, said James.

“These are the people we see maybe in Florida really wanting spring break, and really wanting to party and hang out with their friends, and not really pay too much attention to what is going on in the world,” she explained. “It can come off as really dismissive or inconsiderate, but if we change our perspective toward it and look at it through this freeze response – it is perhaps too overwhelming for them at that moment. No one has experienced this coronavirus before, and to look at it and face it, is pretty overwhelming for many of us and it is easier to dismiss it, ignore it or downplay it.”

James said the key to dealing with the negative aspects of these types of fear responses is to help people find methods to realize how much their fight-or-flight instincts or freeze instincts are controlling them.

“It’s important to respond to COVID-19 and not react to it,” stated James. “Reacting is a reflex, something that there is no pause (to think). So if we can acknowledge this is a fearful time, and build in some pause before we just react then we can come to an intentional, calm and grounded place where we are not in those two categories. And to do that we have to work with our nervous system.”

Follow @TimKalHerald on Twitter


Link to Sacpa livestream recording https://youtu.be/5Dp-mE4vgFM

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